Game over: The pinball wizard and his lost dream of a Washington museum

At one point, David Silverman owned 900 pinball machines. But then the games that brought him joy became a burden. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

In a high-ceilinged, 36,000-square-foot showroom, pinball machines line two walls. The air is punctuated by the distinctive “ka-chunck kachunk, kachunk” of flippers, followed by the high-pitched “bings” of pinballs sent skittering.

Pinball heaven has sprouted in this building on a two-lane roadway in eastern central Pennsylvania. For the half-dozen or so folks who have come, the sights and sounds of these classic machines, with their colorful back-glass images of beauty queens in bright purple bikinis or gangsters in brown fedoras or showgirls wearing red feathers, bring back sweet memories.

Bill Cleary is here. Retired military, he lives just one town over and has made the short drive to have a look-see. He stands at an old wood-rail “Gusher” machine and smiles at the memory of how much fun you could have for a nickeldime.

“I was young back then,” says Cleary, 74. “My friends and I, well, we’d hang around and just play.”

Even the shy can’t help themselves. A sheepish glance over their shoulder and suddenly they’ve got two fingers on the flipper buttons. Barrier broken, they take a tentative pull on the plunger, and from there it’s game on.

One man from Silver Spring has brought them all together. And if things go as David Silverman hopes, these people will pay a lot of money for one (or two) of these classic wood-rail pinballs or one of their modern cousins.

The consummate pinball collector is calling it quits. Silverman’s collection — more than 800 machines that span the history of pinball — from its beginnings in the drawing rooms of French aristocrats to its final days in strip-mall arcades, will be sold in small lots over two years to pay off the hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt he has accrued. One auction will be held this month.

“David was the ultimate collector, and he loved his machines,” said Dan Morphy, owner of the auction house selling his collection. “He’s the encyclopedia of pinball.”

Silverman didn’t just have one of the largest collections of pinball machines in North America, he had a vision: a museum so spectacular it would forever cement pinball’s place in the annals of American pop culture. Graceland with flippers.

But his dream came with a hefty price. At 66, when most folks are contemplating retirement, he is in debt over the museum, eyeing a financial future that depends largely on how much cash this and half a dozen auctions to follow will raise. He has bartered landscaping work to help pay off a client who lent him $10,000, but the bulk of the money will come from selling his collection — one he concedes is probably worth less than half of what he spent to amass it. Virtually every penny he had poured into the museum.

He is here today, because he won’t be tomorrow. He can’t bear to watch when the auction begins. He has wrestled with the question for months. But as always, there are last-minute details, so the trip couldn’t be avoided altogether. He brought two men who’ve worked with him for years on his landscaping crew, and for hours they’ve moved from machine to machine, pulling at their wiry innards and fixing wobbles in their legs under Silverman’s watchful eye.

The last moment comes at just after 5 p.m., when the auction house’s staff starts switching off lights. The two assistants have decamped for the van, leaving him to do the final walkthrough. He wipes the smudges off the glass of one machine, then pauses, a faraway look in his eyes, and runs his hands over the green felt field of what will be the final item in the auction.

He found this Parlor Bagate — circa 1857 — in an old New York City warehouse. It looks more like a skinny pool table than an early iteration of today’s pinball machine. It took months and cost thousands, but Silverman tracked down someone who could remake it. The green felt is smooth. The silver bells have a cool, sweet pitch.

“This is so historically important,” he says. “This is a museum piece.”

His eyes sweep the room.

He was a grad student studying ceramics at Ohio University when he bought his first machine. The Gottlieb Subway set him back $100 — a hefty premium for a starving student. His apartment was so small he had to sleep under the Gottlieb.

More machines followed. Along the way, Silverman married, had a son and started a landscaping business specializing in Japanese gardens. His love for — and obsession with — pinball remained constant. Each purchase was meticulously recorded on a spreadsheet: machine, date, seller and price.

When his collection outgrew the storage space, he built more on his half-acre in Silver Spring. And when that space ran out, he rented more. In time, he said, it wasn’t the machines but the hunt that gave him the biggest thrill. Silverman played only a fraction of the machines he eventually amassed; most went directly into storage as he focused on his next acquisition.

After more than a decade of collecting, he hit on the idea of opening a museum: the National Pinball Museum.

With that dream, collecting took on new urgency. It was no longer about machines that struck his fancy but about machines that had “historical significance.” He acquired a 1920s-era Bagatelle, the tabletop precursor to the modern pinball machine, which has pins but no flippers or plunger; a 1947 Humpty Dumpty, the first to have flippers. And of course, the 1992 Addams Family game, the best-selling flipper pinball machine ever made. At its peak, Silverman estimated, his collection was worth more than $800,000. Today, he said, he’ll be lucky to net $200,000.

Silverman said his wife, Mimi, said little as she watched his collection grow, but even he admits she wasn’t entirely thrilled: “As it became more and more of an obsession, it became less interesting to [her].”

She declined to be interviewed, saying she preferred to keep her thoughts private.

In 2009, when Silverman had nearly 900 machines, a Washington-area micro-blogger highlighted the unusual collection and urged readers to donate quarters to make the museum a reality. The blog post was spotted by a Post reporter, who wrote a story.

After the article appeared in January 2010, the marketing manager from the Shops at Georgetown Park called Silverman to inquire whether he would be interested in bringing his collection to the mall, which had been struggling to find tenants. Silverman could have the space formerly occupied by an FAO Schwarzrent-free but would have to pay for utilities.

In May 2010, Silverman and volunteers set to work. He spent $300,000, a combination of loans, donations and personal savings.

“I spent money I didn’t have,” he said. Others assured him he would be able to get grants to cover his costs, so he thought nothing of spending money on a custom mural for the museum’s entryway, special chairs for the historical display. Any worries he had, he pushed aside.

What he didn’t realize is that the National Pinball Museum’s days in Georgetown were numbered. That summer the mall, with its block-long skylight and Willy Wonka-ish brass and glass elevators, was sold, after the owner defaulted on a loan worth at least $70 million.

Still, the museum opened in December 2010. Newspaper stories and blog posts touted Georgetown’s newest attraction, and lots of folks, it seemed, had a soft spot for pinball. But as Silverman would quickly learn: Good PR was one thing; a museum full of paying customers was a completely different matter. In a town of free museums, Silverman was charging folks $15 to see his.

Silverman had run a successful small business for years but wasn’t prepared for what it took to run a nonprofit. The new museum came with a bevy of responsibilities: accounting, payroll, managing a staff. The reality — as is the case for even the most successful museums — is that the $15 admissions couldn’t keep the enterprise going. So there was fundraising, endless fundraising.

According to tax forms, the museum brought in roughly $61,000 in 2010 but listed expenses twice that. It finished that year $136,000 in debt. Revenue would double, but by the end of 2011, it was nearly $152,000 in debt. By the time the museum closed its doors in 2013, its liabilities had been reduced by almost half, to $67,434, according to tax forms.

Then six months after the opening, Silverman was informed that the mall’s new owners wanted to go in a different direction; he and his machines had 60 days to vacate.

Barely a year in, “we were basically broke,” Silverman said. But he was too determined — and too much in debt — to give up. He figured if he could just keep the museum going, he could make enough money to pay his creditors back.

It was a bad gamble.

In January 2012, the museum reopened in Baltimore, in a space on Water Street in the Inner Harbor.

Again, problems. The building’s electrical supply wasn’t robust enough to power the games and had to be upgraded. The exit signs were red, but fire code dictated they had to be green. When a pipe burst, Silverman and his crew had to scramble to mop up the puddles and keep the pinball machines from short-circuiting. A spokesman for the museum’s landlord, Maryland Family Services, said it was unaware of any issues with the building.

Then Silverman’s mother died.

Silverman remembers being in a fog. He couldn’t sleep; he lost weight. But with the museum, there was no time to pause. Those around him recall a drastic change.

“Once Dave’s mom passed away, his drive to keep it running just evaporated,” said Rick Ahrens, who worked part time repairing the machines. “We’d call, and he wouldn’t answer. There were days when we couldn’t find him.”

Even so, the museum seemed to be on the upswing. Reviews were mostly positive, and players jammed it on weekends. Still, it wasn’t close to breaking even. When it was time to renew the lease and the landlord told him he could stay but it would cost $1,500 more a month for the space, Silverman knew it was over.

The museum closed in March last year. He found a temporary home for the machines at an abandoned shopping mall in Carroll County. Silverman figured he could store the machines there while he pondered his next move.

But a month later he got a call. The mall was going to be demolished for a Wal-Mart. Everything had to be out in three weeks.

“I finally reached a point where I physically and mentally realized I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “I obviously put every penny into the pinball museum.”

But there was one person who saw a silver lining in the closure: his wife.

“I know that she really felt relieved — not so much that the museum failed, but the fact that I had come to the realization that I had to let it go.’’


Potential buyers, including Pat Fatula of Pottsville, Pa., (green jacket) look over the collection. (Joseph Victor Stefanchik/For The Washington Post)

The early birds arrive as soon as the doors open at the auction house. The fog is pea-soup thick. The sale won’t begin for two hours, but at least a dozen folks are wandering past the first 76 of Silverman’s machines to go up for auction.

The crowd, mostly white men in their 50s and 60s, includes many of Silverman’s friends and rivals from the pinball world, collectors who have moved in the same circles for decades as they sought (and fought over) machines. Some, who had been to Silverman’s museum, were sad to see it close — but now eager to start bidding.

Brian Lehman has known Silverman for years. He and John Patterson, both in their 60s, linger near the display of wood-rail machines, so called because their playing fields are framed in wood. These are the machines of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s — and Silverman’s collection includes several hundred, a fraction of which are on the block today.

Patterson has a yellow legal pad where he has made notes of every machine in the auction. He has done a lot of pre-sale scouting, noting which machines already have online bids and speculating on which ones might be the first to go.

“$1,200 for the Dragonette?” Patterson sniffs. “You know how much I paid for mine? $33.”

This is pinball trash talk, since Patterson knows Lehman has been searching for a Dragonette for years.

“It was the first machine I played,” Lehman explained. “I’m ready to deal, and I’m dead serious.”

But others at the sale are simply those who say they spotted a machine they wanted and decided to make the trip.

John Gaeta, 49, a carpenter from Union Beach, N.J., came in the hope of buying a machine for his two children. They’re too young to have played pinball, but he thinks they’d get a kick out of having one at home.

He has his eye on the Guns N’ Roses game with the gun-shaped plunger, but he’s intrigued by the “Tommy”-themed machine (named for the rock opera) that sits in the same row. Then there’s the Barb Wire with its come-hither image of Pamela Anderson.

Pat Prosey is one of the few women in the crowd. She and husband Joe are big-time collectors who have their own museum. Magic Crystal Valley in Leonardtown, Md., is home to more than 5,000 Cabbage Patch Dolls and related memorabilia.

After spotting the Guns N’ Roses in the auction’s online catalogue, Prosey knew she’d have to have it. Her son-in-law is a member of the heavy-metal hair band Ratt, and Prosey wants to see the expression on his face when he sees it.

By 9 a.m. more than 100 people have crowded into the auction room, which resembles a medium-size movie theater. The rows are 10 seats across. The prospective buyers clutch their paper numbers and settle into the upholstered seats.

At the back, three Morphy Auctions employees sit at a table with telephones. At the front, on either side of the auctioneer, are more employees seated at black laptops. In addition to the people in the room, others are bidding via Internet and phone.

The auctioneer clears his throat, takes a sip of water. He reads the rules, and the sale begins.

First up is a Gottlieb Whirl-Wind with original bumper caps and a repainted cabinet. Value: $800 to $1,500. In 30 seconds, it’s gone: $950. On it goes — no more than 30 seconds per lot. Bidders discreetly hold up their numbers, their faces expressionless.

When the Dragonette hits the block, Lehman straightens in his chair. He gets three bids in before the price moves past his $1,000 limit. The machine would ultimately go for $1,500. But he won’t walk out empty-handed. He’ll spend $550 plus taxes and fees for a Gottlieb Select a Card, well below its catalogue estimate of $800 to $1,200. The front door is missing, but it has a turret shooter, a device that sits between the bottom two flippers, catches the pinball and shoots it left or right.

Bidding for the Guns N’ Roses comes down to Gaeta and Prosey. The opening price quickly escalates to $2,000, and in seconds it’s up to $3,000. When the price hits $3,500, Gaeta shakes his head and reluctantly drops his paper. For $3,500, Prosey has won this round. She can’t wait to get the machine back home to Leonardtown.

For Silverman, who spent the day at home, it’s welcome news. He feels good when he hears that the whole lot went quickly. But some of that excitement would fade when news that two machines, including the Parlor Bagate — didn’t sell after all. But there will be other opportunities — the auction house will attempt to sell them at a future auction. Minus the auction house’s commission, it appeared as if Silverman would make about $80,000 from the sale.

“I need to move on, but I’ve got this anchor around my neck,” he says. “Morphy’s is helping me get rid of that.

“Unfortunately, it’s still not over. I keep thinking that one day I’m really going to reach the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel keeps lengthening.”


Fatula plays the "Red and Ted's Road Show" pinball machine at the auction. (Joseph Victor Stefanchik/For The Washington Post)

Silverman says he’ll keep maybe a dozen of his favorite machines. Or maybe 20. Or 50. The number changes with his mood.

As for the foundation he set up in 1998 to raise money for the museum — that’s another thing he’s not quite sure about. He can’t quite bring himself to shut it down, though he knows there won’t be another National Pinball Museum.

In January, a friend called and asked if he had seen a recent segment on the “Today” show about a new pinball spot in New York City. Later that day, Silverman checked it out.

“It’s a small place.” He couldn’t help but feel a pang. “I hope they succeed.”

Whether Silverman can give up his obsession of nearly four decades remains to be seen. He has sworn his collecting days are over. Yet each morning when he wakes up, he checks eBay to see which pinball machines are for sale. A new state-of-the-art pinball machine stands in his living room. It arrived last summer. Back in 2010, when Jersey Jack Pinball went into business, Silverman was one of a handful of collectors who forked over a $2,000 deposit to be among the first to buy one of the $8,000 machines.

But Silverman says no more pinballs. He’s just going to collect cuckoo clocks — specifically, Black Forest cuckoo clocks. He points to the dining-room wall where a half-dozen hang. They are small and don’t require a lot of storage space. And he has no plans to put them into a museum.

“My wife once said to me, ‘Why can’t you collect stamps?’ ” he recalled with a chuckle. “She doesn’t realize I already do.”

Lori Aratani covers transportation and development for The Washington Post.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.
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Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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